Ground Cones and Witches’ Butter

The forest road we’ve been walking on has not provided much in the way of wildlife sightings—two flickers, and various mammalian scat—but here are two odd “plants” seen this week. One’s a fungus, the other a plant with no chlorophyll. Let’s look at that one first:


This is the ground cone (Boschniakia strobilacea), which we found pushed up through duff near maple and madrone trees.


These belong to a group of organisms that are considered plants, although they have no chlorophyll and hence don’t make their living through photosynthesis. The larger group to which they belong is that of heterotrophic plants,

meaning “other-feeding”, since they must get their nutrition from other organisms.

Heterotrophic plants are divided into one of two groups, based upon how they obtain their food. The first of these two groups are parasitic plants. As parasites, they obtain their organic carbon from a host green plant directly through the use of structures called haustoria [rootlike outgrowths]. Wildflowers such as ground cone … are examples of root parasites. US Forest Service

Ground cones may not look like it but they are flowering plants; the ones we found today were from last spring, so they had flowered and gone to seed. Last spring they probably looked like this:


Photo by Russell Towle, taken in the Sierra Nevada (N. fork of the American River).

Here is one of the seed pods and contents.


The pod, though swollen with moisture, was still less than a quarter inch in diameter before I broke it open.

Our other find was a gelatinous fungus with the colorful and descriptive name of witches’ butter.

Witches' butter 1CR.jpg

I think this is Dacrymyces palmatus; similar-looking yellow-orange fungi, with the same common name, are found as parasites growing on other fungi, rather than directly on wood like this. And the witches have “butter” that is black in color too (Exidia recisa, see photo here).

Witches' butter 2CR.jpg

These are the fruiting bodies, like a conventional mushroom, though I could not find out in a brief search of the net exactly how the spores disperse.

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